What We Learned About Ourselves During the COVID-19 Pandemic
MMy first house had a backdoor that led to a large concrete patio. To protect my sister, I always stayed on the opposite side of the divide when I was playing with her. 1988 Film The Land Before Time It was the very first movie I saw. The image of earth breaking apart and falling into pieces was a powerful one. It was clear to me that I could become the Triceratops in my backyard as the world crumbles into chaos.
Some 30 years later, I marvel at the eerie, unexpected ways that cartoonish nightmare came to life – not just for me and my family, but for all of us. Although the landscape had been covered with fissures long before COVID-19 arrived on the planet, the pressure of the pandemic caused cracks to open wide, isolating us physically as well as ideologically. Under the weight of the crisis, we scattered and landed on such different patches of earth we could barely see each other’s faces, even when we squinted. There was fierce disagreement between us about the truth and how to react.
Recently, someone asked me if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, and my first thought was a flat no. Nothing. There was a time when I thought it would be the very thing to draw us together and catapult us – as a capital “S” Society – into a kinder future. It’s surreal to remember those early days when people rallied together, sewing masks for health care workers during critical shortages and gathering on balconies in cities from Dallas to New York City to clap and sing songs like “Yellow Submarine.” It felt like a giant lightning bolt shot across the sky, and for one breath, we all saw something that had been hidden in the dark – the inherent vulnerability in being human or maybe our inescapable connectedness.
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It turned out that it was a fleeting moment. It was as quick as the goodwill disappeared. People feel abandoned and lied to a couple of years later. I’ve felt my own curiosity shrinking, my willingness to reach out waning, my ability to keep my hands open dwindling. As I gaze out at the landscape, selfishness and anger are all around me. There is also burnt soil and many bodies. It’s over. We lost. And if we’ve already lost, why try?
But the question never stopped me.Am I really seeing all the details? Is it possible to see the whole picture if we don’t focus on the entire society, but only one person and one story at time? I’m not asking for a bow to minimize the suffering – a pretty flourish to put on top and make the whole thing “worth it.” Yuck. That’s not what we need. But I wondered about deep, quiet growth. This is the kind that we experience in our bodies and relationships as well as at home, work, or within our neighborhoods.
As a message from the ground to my friends, I sent a WhatsApp call. Is this what you are seeing? What are you hearing? Do you feel anything is possible? Do you believe there is life beyond this rubble? Is there life in the rubble? I heard human voices calling back – reports of life, personal and specific. I heard one story at a time – stories of grief and distrust, fury and disappointment. Also, gratitude. Discovery. Determination.
Stories of self-revelation were among the most popular. It was almost like machines had the ability to be human, and people described becoming fuller versions of themselves. They listened to their bodies’ cues, recognized their desires and comforts, tuned into their gut instincts, and honored the intuition they hadn’t realized belonged to them. Alex, who is a fellow parent with a disability, discovered the space to express a more complete version of her in the anonymity provided by the pandemic. “The way I dress, the way I love, and the way I carry myself have both shrunk and expanded,” she shared. “I don’t love myself very well with an audience.” Without the daily ritual of trying to pass as “normal” in public, Tamar, a queer mom in the Netherlands, realized she’s autistic. “I think the pandemic helped me to recognize the mask,” she wrote. “Not that unmasking is easy now. But at least I know it’s there.” In a time of widespread suffering that none of us could solve on our own, many tended to our internal wounds and misalignments, large and small, and found clarity.
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This flourishing in self-awareness might be partially responsible for some of the changes people made to their lives. Our personal views of work were thrown open by the pandemic, which forced us to evaluate things such as time and money. Lucy, an U.K.-based disabled writer made the difficult decision to give up her position as a journalist in Westminster and start writing freelance articles about her loved disability community. “This work feels important in a way nothing else has ever felt,” she wrote. “I don’t think I’d have realized this was what I should be doing without the pandemic.” And she wasn’t alone – many people changed jobs, moved, learned new skills and hobbies, became politically engaged.
People described significant changes in their relationships, perhaps more so than other shifts. They were able to set limits, say no and have difficult conversations. They were able to reunite, fall in love, trust and learn how to trust one another. Jeanne, a quilter in Indiana, got to know relatives she wouldn’t have connected with if lockdowns hadn’t prompted weekly family Zooms. “We are all over the map as regards to our belief systems,” she emphasized, “but it is possible to love people you don’t see eye to eye with on every issue.” Anna, an anti-violence advocate in Maine, learned she could trust her new marriage: “Life was not a honeymoon. But we still chose to turn to each other with kindness and curiosity.” So many bonds forged and broken, strengthened and strained.
Widespread recalibrations have allowed us to go off-script and strengthen smaller communities, instead of depending on institutional or default relationships. Mara of Idyllwild (Calif.) described the specific plan she put in place for her community. “We started a mutual-aid group at the beginning of the pandemic,” she wrote, “and it grew so quickly before we knew it we were feeding 400 of the 4000 residents.” She didn’t pretend the conditions were ideal. She expressed frustration at the collective responses to the pandemic. Despite this, she expressed frustration with the collective response to the pandemic. The local group rallied to continue to provide assistance for their community through donations and volunteer help (many of which were initially on the receiving end). “I’ve learned that people thrive when they feel their connection to others,” she wrote. Clare, a teacher from the U.K., voiced similar conviction as she described a giant scarf she’s woven out of ribbons, each representing a single person. The scarf is “a collection of stories, moments and wisdom we are sharing with each other,” she wrote. The scarf now extends well beyond 1,000 feet.
After a few hours of readingAs the comments suggested, I laid back on my side, with my phone against my chest. My internal world lit up with firefly flickers, even though the room was still quiet. Was there something different about it? Receiving personal stories of deep-rooted growth was certainly a big part. There was also something about simply asking questions and listening. It may have connected me with other people long before the battle cries. Maybe it was the chance to be in conversation with others who were also trying to understand – what is happening to us? Unbelievably, there was an unmistakable thread. I observed people gazing in the murkiness and then describing their experiences onto the common frequency. Each comment was like an ember in the sky. I’m here! And if the sky is full of flares, we aren’t alone.
I recognized my own pandemic discoveries – some minor, others massive. Like washing off thick eyeliner and mascara every night is more effort than it’s worth; I can transform the mundane into the magical with a bedsheet, a movie projector, and twinkle lights; my paralyzed body can mother an infant in ways I’d never seen modeled for me. It was difficult, confusing conversations that I recalled from my family of origin. They also showed me our inept attempts at being close and seeing the world differently. I realized that every time I get the weekly invite to my virtual “Find the Mumsies” call, with a tiny group of moms living hundreds of miles apart, I’m being welcomed into a pocket of unexpected community. Even though we’ve never been in one room all together, I’ve felt an uncommon kind of solace in their now-familiar faces.
It is difficult to believe in hope. Although I want it so badly, there are plenty of reasons that I can’t let go. This pandemic is a milestone in the timeline. It marks an intersection of a crumbling democracy and a planet that is rapidly deteriorating, as well as the erosion of rights that were once so strong. The world is crumbling The Land Before Time style, it can feel trite, sniffing out the beauty – useless, firing off flares to anyone looking for signs of life. But, while I’m under no delusions that if we just keep trudging forward we’ll find our own oasis of waterfalls and grassy meadows glistening in the sunshine beneath a heavenly chorus, I wonder if trivializing small acts of beauty, connection, and hope actually cuts us off from resources essential to our survival. The abandoned dinosaurs helped each other to survive and made each other laugh long before reaching their fairytale ending.
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Hannah Soyer, a friend and fellow writer sent wildflower seeds for me to plant in my garden after the monarch butterfly was placed on the endangered-species’ list. A simple act of big hope – that I will actually plant them, that they will grow, that a monarch butterfly will receive nourishment from whatever blossoms are able to push their way through the dirt. You can fail in so many different ways. But maybe the outcome wasn’t exactly the point. Maybe hope is the dogged insistence – the stubborn defiance – to continue cultivating moments of beauty regardless. The planting is more important than the harvest.
I can’t point out a single collective lesson from the pandemic. It’s hard to see any great “we.” Still, I see the faces in my moms’ group, making pancakes for their kids and popping on between strings of meetings while we try to figure out how to raise these small people in this chaotic world. As I look at my Instagram friends, I can see them tending to the self they found when no one was looking and the scarf full of ribbons stretching over three football fields. My three-generational family was holding hands as we walked up the ramp towards the library. These bits of growth and rings of support might not be loud or right on the surface, but that’s not the same thing as nothing. If we only cared about the bottom-line defeats or sweeping successes of the big picture, we’d never plant flowers at all.
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